Jul 102020

Today is the birthday of Blind Boy Fuller (born Fulton Allen, July 10, 1904 or 1907), a Piedmont blues guitarist and singer who was one of the most popular recorded musicians of his era. He was born in Wadesboro, North Carolina, one of ten children of Calvin Allen and Mary Jane Walker. After the death of his mother, he moved with his father to Rockingham, North Carolina. As a boy he learned to play the guitar and also learned from older singers the field hollers, country rags, traditional songs, and blues popular in poor rural areas of North Carolina.

In his teens he worked as a laborer when began to lose his eyesight. By 1928 he was completely blind, and a 1937 eye examination attributed his vision loss to the long-term effects of untreated neonatal conjunctivitis. He turned to whatever employment he could find as a singer and entertainer, often playing in the streets. By studying the records of country blues players like Blind Blake and live performances by Gary Davis, Allen became an accomplished guitarist, playing on street corners and at house parties in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Danville, Virginia; and then Durham, North Carolina. In Durham, playing around the tobacco warehouses, he developed a local following, which included the guitarists Floyd Council and Richard Trice, the harmonica player Saunders Terrell (better known as Sonny Terry), and the washboard player and guitarist George Washington.

In 1935, James Baxter Long, a record store manager and talent scout in Burlington, North Carolina, secured Allen a recording session with the American Recording Company (ARC). Allen, Davis and Washington recorded several tracks in New York City, including the traditional “Rag, Mama, Rag”. To promote the records, Long credited Allen as Blind Boy Fuller and Washington as Bull City Red.

Over the next five years Fuller recorded over 120 records, which were released by several labels. His style of singing was rough and direct, and his lyrics were explicit and uninhibited, drawing on every aspect of his experience as an underprivileged, blind African-American man on the streets—pawnshops, jailhouses, sickness, death—with an honesty that lacked sentimentality.

In 1938 Fuller, who was described as having a fiery temper, was imprisoned for shooting a pistol at his wife, wounding her in the leg. His imprisonment prevented him from performing in “From Spirituals to Swing”, a concert produced by John Hammond in New York City that year. Sonny Terry performed in his place and was the beginning of Terry’s long career in folk music. After Fuller was released from prison, he held his last two recording sessions, in New York City in June 1940, but by then he was increasingly physically weak, and much of the material did not match the quality and energy of his earlier recordings.

Fuller’s repertoire included a number of popular double-entendre “hokum” songs, such as “I Want Some of Your Pie”, “Truckin’ My Blues Away” (the origin of the phrase “keep on truckin'”), and “Get Your Yas Yas Out” (adapted as Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out for the title of an album by the Rolling Stones), and the autobiographical “Big House Bound”, about his time in prison. Much of his material was culled from traditional folk and blues songs. He possessed a formidable fingerpicking guitar style. He played a steel National resonator guitar. He was criticized by some as a derivative musician, but his ability to fuse together elements of traditional and contemporary songs and reformulate them in his own performances attracted a broad audience, best remembered for his up-tempo ragtime hits, including “Step It Up and Go”. At the same time he was capable of deeper material, such as, his versions of “Lost Lover Blues”, “Rattlesnakin’ Daddy” and “Mamie.” Much of his repertoire and style is kept alive by other Piedmont artists to this day.

Fuller died at his home in Durham, North Carolina, on February 13, 1941 (aged, maybe, 33 or 36).

I have given many North Carolina recipes that I like, and because I lived and did fieldwork in the state for 5 years I have numerous favorites (usually brought out on New Year’s Day): hush puppies, pot-likker soup, greasy greens, hoppin’ John etc. all of which you can search for on this site and will work as a celebratory dish. For me, the dish has to be North Carolina BBQ. Unlike elsewhere in the South it is made with slow-cooked pork, seasoned with a sauce made with apple-cider vinegar, crushed red peppers, and sugar (plus other “secret” ingredients). It is known as “pulled pork” because you can just pull it off the roasting pig in delicious juicy shreds. There are several videos showing North Carolina BBQ pits available, but they are all made by white good ol’ boys who are probably as racist as they come, so I have selected a video from South Carolina. Most South Carolina BBQ is quite different from North Carolina varieties, but this one seems close to me, and is hyper-traditional.